Mandatory Credit: Photo by Eric Gay/AP/Shutterstock (13495207c) New York Yankees Aaron Judge (99) watches his ball fly out during the first inning in Game 2 of baseball’s American League Championship Series between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees, in Houston ALCS Yankees Astros Baseball, Houston, United States – 20 Oct 2022
Looking at the best free agents in the 2023 class at a potential position of need for the World Champions
Basking in the glory of a championship is always fun and should be enjoyed. Celebrate, show off your swag, brag to your non-Astros friends, but also keep an eye on the developing free agent market.
The Houston Astros currently have luxury tax allocations for 2023 at $152,440,476 (per spotrac.com) against the MLB designated threshold of $233 million. That gives the team roughly $80 million under the first tax threshold to add to its roster.
The biggest areas of need for the Astros entering the 2023 season will be outfield, first base, and the bullpen.
These are the best free agent outfielders expected to be on the free agent market for the 2023 season:
Aaron Judge (.311/.425/.686, 62 HR, 131 RBI, 133 R, 16 SB, 10.6 WAR)
Judge is expected to be the runaway AL MVP and for good reason. He obliterated baseballs in 2022 like no one else. He also showed he can be a solid centerfielder despite his mammoth size and is still an excellent right fielder. His barrel rate and hard-hit rate are ultra-elite, and he does not get himself out fishing for bad pitches (top 20% in lowest chase rate).
The drawbacks are he is going into his age 31 season, and historically players his size do not age well. However, Judge has also shown to be an incredible athlete, not just a huge human being and therefore looks to be a precedent setter in that regard. While Judge has dealt with injury issues in his career, he has only missed a total of 19 games over the past two seasons combined.
It is extremely unlikely that the Astros would meet Judge’s asking price, expected to be in the eight-year, $200+ million range, though there is no guarantee he ultimately gets that. Just the idea of Altuve, Judge, Yordan, Bregman and Tucker in the same lineup would be so good, it should be illegal. An outfield of Judge, McCormick and Tucker would be the best defensive OF in baseball, and Alvarez, Judge and Tucker would be the most feared. Nothing wrong with a little dreaming.
In all fairness, I should put an image of the Grand Canyon here because that is how big the gap is between Judge and everyone else.
Brandon Nimmo (.274/.367/.433, 16 HR, 64 RBI, 102 R, 3 SB, 5.1 WAR)
Nimmo is a very solid, yet underrated player. He hits for a good average, is a high on-base player, has good gap power, will hit some home runs, and plays average to slightly better than average defense. He has also only played two full seasons, as a player who has dealt with injuries and been a part of a platoon. For the first four years of his career, the Mets rarely allowed him to face left-handed pitching.
Nimmo played a career high 151 games in 2022 and started extensively in centerfield for a 101-win New York Mets team. Historically, Nimmo is an average CF but a very good LF. For his seven-year career, he has a .385 OBP and an .824 OPS. He is a very productive player when he plays.
Nimmo also showed he can hit lefties over the past two seasons, posting an .800 OPS versus LHP in that time. Nimmo has proven to be a good leadoff man with his high OBP numbers.
The Astros could look at Nimmo as part of a three-man game with Yordan Alvarez and Chas McCormick. Nimmo and Yordan can share LF duties, allowing both to save wear and tear on their bodies, and Nimmo can also play CF when McCormick is out of the lineup, allowing the team to still have a league average defender in CF with a plus bat. Nimmo could also allow the Astros to remove Jose Altuve from the leadoff spot (a place Altuve would prefer not to be) and into the two-hole where he can have more opportunities to drive in runs hitting between Nimmo and Yordan.
Nimmo also allows the Astros to have a more balanced lineup, as he is a left-handed bat. With the elimination of the shift coming to MLB next season, lefty hitters should see an uptick in average as they will no longer be grounding out to a second baseman playing 50 feet into right field. Not having the shift will likely make it harder for right-handed relievers to maintain effectiveness against left-handed batters unless they have major strikeout stuff. Pitchers will have to learn how to pitch to softer contact and force batters to try to pull outside pitches instead of just hammering them inside to force a pull. A more balanced lineup will be even more productive in a shiftless MLB in 2023. Nimmo’s price tag could be in the four to five-year range and $100-$125 million.
Andrew Benintendi (.304/.373/.399, 5 HR, 51 RBI, 54 R, 8 SB, 3.2 WAR)
Benintendi’s low HR output last season will certainly raise eyebrows, but he did hit 17 as recently as 2021. He hit between 13-20 HR in each of his four full seasons prior to 2022. Whomever his new team is will likely look to address whatever caused his power falloff and work with him to bring it back. Benintendi still has plus speed, but the stolen base attempts were down. With MLB having new rules in 2023 with bigger bases, limiting a pitcher’s ability to throw to first, and a pitch clock to help increase base stealing, Benintendi could resume being more of a base stealing threat.
Entering his age 28 season, Benintendi is likely a pure left fielder at this point of his career, where he is league average. He has not played CF since 2019, and he was barely adequate as a centerfielder then. He has become too willing to go with pitches to the opposite field for singles instead of driving the ball for extra bases. Maybe it was a single year aberration, but it will need to be addressed by any team looking to sign him to a multiyear deal.
Benintendi could also slot into a LF/DH rotation with Alvarez, though he should not really be playing CF at all. His high average and OBP would lend him to the leadoff spot, which would, again, allow the Astros to move Altuve down and extend the lineup.
Michael Conforto (did not play 2022 – shoulder surgery)
While Conforto’s (likely agent led) decision not to accept the Mets qualifying offer after 2021 of $18 million is now clearly a huge mistake, it should also be a motivating factor for the power hitting OF, who was coming off a down season in 2021 (like every other player in the Mets lineup that year).
Conforto’s 2021 got off to a slow start, and a serious hamstring injury cost him nearly two months. He then suffered a shoulder injury in January 2022 that required surgery and cost him the season. He is expected to return fully healthy for 2023.
Historically, Conforto is a good power hitter, demonstrating an acceptable average, good on-base and strong OPS numbers (.255/.356/.468). He hit a career high 33 HR in 2019 and tore the cover off the ball in the covid-shortened season to a .927 OPS. Conforto is a capable defender in both corners but is better in left field and provides his power from the left side of the plate.
Adding a 25-35 HR bat with high OBP skills fits exactly into the Astros’ model, and Conforto is likely looking at a one year, “prove it” type of deal to show he is fully recovered and can be the player he was prior to injury. The potential discount value of his contract also fits into the Astros’ model.
Michael Brantley (.288/.370/.416, 5 HR, 26 RBI, 28 R, 1 SB, 1.3 WAR)
“Uncle Mike” has become a fan favorite in Houston over the past four seasons, but his 2022 was cut short by a serious shoulder injury that required surgery. Brantley is no stranger to shoulder injuries, as this is his third significant shoulder injury. His previous two shoulder injuries limited him to 11 games in 2016. A significant ankle injury held him to 90 games the following year. While Brantley has been relatively healthy as an Astro, he has missed notable time due to multiple ankle injuries prior to his shoulder injury in 2022.
Brantley currently projects as more of a DH than an OF, as he has become a below average fielder with a below average (although accurate) arm and limited range. He is a very smart player and is highly regarded and respected by his teammates. Brantley is as professional a hitter as they come, with an excellent approach and terrific plate discipline. His sharply declining home run power is a significant question going into his age 36 season.
A reunion in Houston is not out of the question for Brantley, especially considering how much improvement Yordan Alvarez has shown as a fielder and Yordan’s expressed desire to play the field more. Brantley could be a lower cost left-handed bat, able to play the field perhaps twice a week at home, and DH the majority of the time. His high average, high on-base approach makes him an excellent two hitter. Houston (and any team that considers signing him) would need to be diligent in managing his workload to keep him healthy.